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Rashmita Das from Maharashtra is a software engineer and a proud employee of a multinational firm. She is proud because she has always been an achiever and has bagged this reputed position, which paid her lakhs (hundreds of thousands of rupees), in the first round of placement held during the final year of her college. Being an educated and financially independent woman, she had her dreams, aspirations and expectations for herself. Her family arranged for a groom from the same profession, working in the US on an H1B visa offered to foreign workers in particular occupations. She married him and got settled in the US on a dependent visa known as an H4 visa. What followed in the aftermath of her migration was the unanticipated turn of her life, shattering her dreams and confidence. She found that she does not have permission to work on an H4 visa. She was scared and worried about the idea of being confined at home. The restriction on work meant that she would be financially dependent on her husband for every need, which was hard for her to accept. She could not understand why she cannot work when she was skilled enough to work. In fact, in many instances, she would help her husband in his office work at home but yet she was the dependent.
The charm and excitement of the ‘American Dream’ started fading away, and she felt lonely most of the time, confined at home. Family and friends in India would explain to her how lucky she was to be in the US and that she should stop complaining. Her loneliness turned into anger, frustration and depression. Her husband Manav could never understand why Rashmita was always talking about the need to have a job when she could have the luxury of staying at home and enjoying life. But that is not what she wanted. All she was longing for was to have an identity for herself. Manav’s sympathy soon turned into frustration, and there were frequent spells of verbal clashes, which later turned into physical abuse. Later they had a child in the hope of fixing their issues and easing her loneliness. However, things did not change much. The physical and verbal abuse became more frequent, and she started contemplating the idea of getting a divorce. She was devastated to know that in the case of divorce the principal visa holder gets custody of the child. Her visa becomes invalid because the H4 visa holder is dependent on the principal visa holder. She would have to leave the country without her child. In the blink of an eye, she felt that she lost everything. She was forced to continue in an abusive relationship to be with her child.
The narratives of migration experiences are predominantly male-oriented. Women have always been part of the migratory journey, but they are often left unseen and unheard. The story of Rashmita Das resonates with many other women in the US on an H4 visa. Though the magnitude of the issue may vary from case to case, the dependency perpetuated by the state in the form of a dependent visa has impacted many women in the US.
Every year approximately 85000 Indians leave India to join the labour market in the US on an H1B visa. There is a parallel migration stream with an approximately equal number of spouses of these H1B visa holders. Data shows that due to the systematic exclusion of women in the labour market, almost 80% of the H1B visas petitions are filed by men; implying that most H1B visa holders are men and most H4 visa holders are women (USCIS, 2019, Balgamwalla, 2014). These H4 visa holders, despite being equally skilled and educated, are legally constrained from entering the labour market. Their immigration to the US and their continuity of stay are contingent on the principal visa holder, i.e., H1B holder. The visa restricts them from possessing a social security number or even a bank account which makes women completely dependent on their husbands.
The vulnerable space in which a woman is pushed due to such a visa is exploited by many men to perpetuate violence. There have been increasing cases of physical and verbal abuse, depression, and anxiety among several thousands of women who are forced into dependency by the state. Ironically, the US was the first country to organise a national movement for women’s rights in 1848 yet after several decades, a large chunk of women have been deprived of their right to live with dignity.
The state perpetuates the patriarchal notions of social roles by assigning superior positions to men through immigration laws. Despite the US being a land of opportunity, there is no level playing field within the immigrant household. On the one hand, H1B visa holders have ample scope to excel in their careers; on the other, their married women counterparts are pushed into the confines of domestic spaces where they can be trapped in abusive relationships.
While an article on 24th February 2009 from Forbes read ‘Indian Americans: The New Model Minority’ applauding Indian immigrants in the US for their achievements and successes. But the question to ask is–whose achievements and whose successes are we talking of? Whose success stories are we extrapolating under the banner of ‘Indian’s success story’?
Tasha Agarwal is presently working as a Consultant in the Ministry of External Affairs. She has a PhD degree from the School of Development Studies, Ambedkar University Delhi and an M. Phil degree in Educational Planning and Policy from NIEPA. Her research interest lies in the field of international migration and gender, refugees and education. She has been associated with several national as well as international projects by Stanford University, SAAPE, and NCERT. She has also worked with national-level education bodies to develop innovative learning tools such as audio-visual content, comic books etc.